Towards the middle of my grandmother’s second battle with breast cancer, she realized she was never going to see Europe. My grandfather had recently died, she was weakened by treatments, but her urge to travel kicked in again on a morning in September. She had, for all my life, always been a woman in constant and focused motion.
I remember the day she asked me to take her to New York City. She called me and immediately upon my answering started in. “What does a room actually cost at the Waldorf-Astoria?” This query had to have been founded from my sister Casey and me telling her about our discounted adventures during a market we had attended a month before at the hotel she was asking about.
I didn’t really know where she was heading with this line of questioning, I figured she might just be nosy. But whenever she started with a question and not a “hello”, I knew she had been chewing on an idea for hours or days. I was intrigued and willing to play along. I didn’t really know what the room rate was, but I jumped online after hanging up and found out. By the end of our second abbreviated conversation that day, she all but said she wanted me and my husband to join her in “the biggest city I’ll ever set foot in.”
I’m not a fool. We went to New York.
We ended up sharing a room – her in one double bed and us in another. I think she wanted us close – and, if I remember correctly, the room rate was steep. She never intended on staying in any other hotel. Without ever having been to New York, the Waldorf was “her New York”. The hotel of queens and presidents and movie stars. Fancy balls, galas, and weddings. And her dreams.
I let her choose our agenda, but, seeing my once-vibrant grandmother lessened by disease, I knew we would need to hit the highlights and see the breadth and width of the city in ways that impacted the body softly. Looking back, the only thing we didn’t get done was a subway ride. Taxi rides, tour boats to Staten Island and around Lady Liberty, top-level seats on a double-decker tourist bus, three Broadway shows, a hot dog from a street vendor, and one special dinner after a show near Times Square. We accomplished a great deal. We went in early October, and the weather was delightful. Blue sky days and crisp nights.
The greatest memory from the trip happened in our room. She was in her bed, the one closest to the bathroom. She was on her right side facing away from me and the bedside light. I had seen her in this position every time I ever entered her bedroom as a child. My husband was sitting beside me reading in our bed, and we were both still dressed from our afternoon matinee. She had already declared herself “in for the night” an hour or so earlier.
Many minutes passed in the city that never sleeps, and night darkened outside our single window facing Lexington Avenue. I thought she was sleeping because her hand-knitted cap – to cover chemo-ruined hair – was firmly in place and she was still.
Out of the blue, I heard, “We need pizza.”
She was right, and my husband was delighted. It is his favorite food in any city, but “street pizza” in NY is the delicious pinnacle. I forged ahead with questions about specifics – toppings and sauces – and she said, “Get five pieces, all different, and we’ll share.”
We loved every bite, and she marveled at the size of the slices – each in its own box – and wondered how we would ever finish them. It really wasn’t a problem any of us spent much time contemplating.
Pizza may not have been the wisest decision for late night food for a survivor over 70 years of age – or for her descendent and her husband. Ours was the smallest room the Waldorf offers, and we filled it with the wonderful smell of pizza. And probably the hall as well.
Today I walked alone from a borrowed apartment in New Jersey. I traipsed to the ferry and made my daily move into Manhattan. Every day before this one on this trip, I have been in motion with a member of my family – husband, sister or friend. I was never alone. Until today. It didn’t last, the alone part. Somewhere in the watery region between New Jersey and New York, I was with my grandmother again. She joined me on the ferry, and the memories of five days spent in this city ten years ago overwhelmed me. It was the last trip she ever took.
I believe we all have our own New York, whether we live there full time or live in it as visitors. Places we must visit every time we can. Neighborhoods we move through because they take us back to the first time we were there. Routes considered and re-considered depending upon the time of day.
My son’s New York continues to hold awe and discovery.
My sister’s New York has the Twin Towers in it.
My mother’s New York gifted us fancy truffles every time she returned to her children.
And her mother’s New York was the Waldorf-Astoria.
My New York? I’m still trying to figure it out. But I’m willing to come as often as it takes to solve the mystery. It’s probably all of their New Yorks combined with mine.
p.s. All of these photographs were taken on my daily walks to and from the ferry on this most recent trip to New York. On the last day, there was a parade. You can’t beat that with a stick.